Ballet Evolved: How ballet class has changed over the centuries

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Barre work in ballet has changed considerably over the last 200 years. Find out more at

From its origins at the French court, the ballet class has evolved through the centuries. Join Ursula Hageli as she explores this ballet tradition with dancers of The Royal Ballet.

Modern ballet class starts with increasingly complex exercises at the barre before the dancers move into the centre. It’s a format that has remained more or less unchanged since ballet technique first began to be codified in the early 19th century, by the influential teacher and dancer Carlo Blasis. But the exercises themselves have changed quite a bit, as former ballet mistress Ursula Hageli explains in this Ballet Evolved Insight.

Ursula is joined by six Royal Ballet dancers to demonstrate how exercises have changed from Blasis’s era through the late 19th century and right up to the modern dancer: ‘we’re going to see side by side how the dancers have got much more supple and movements have got bigger’.

One fundamental change in ballet since Blasis’s day is the dancers’ turn-out, which has ‘increased from 45 degrees to 90 degrees, which is actually a very difficult thing to do – we have to do that by holding onto the muscles at the top of the leg. However, when all this turn-out started it wasn’t quite as well thought through, so they had a vice to turn out the feet – which must have been excruciatingly painful’.

An obvious difference to the class itself is the length of exercises. Class today at The Royal Ballet lasts about 90 minutes (45 minutes each at the barre and in the centre) and covers a wide range of movements. In Blasis’s day ‘the barre used to last just 15 minutes, because they just did two or three exercises and that was it. Today’s dancers are doing more exercises but of shorter duration’.